My quest to visit Plains, Georgia began last fall when I discovered the Plains Inn, the quaint, renovated upstairs hotel above an antique mall in the town that President Jimmy Carter made famous in the 1970s. Patrons of the inn stay in themed decade rooms that span Carter’s life and career, beginning with the 1920s—when he was born—and ascending to the 1980s—when he returned to his hometown of Plains.
When I called in October 2016, the manager, Jan Williams, informed me that all rooms were booked through January 2017. I decided to wait until later into the next year to arrange the trip, but I knew I shouldn’t wait long. After all, President Carter, a recent brain cancer survivor, had turned 92 years old that first day of October, the same month I made the first call to the inn.
In June of this year, I booked a reservation for the first weekend in August. When I called, Ms. Williams informed me that there was one room left: the 1960s room. I had already seen photos of the rooms online, and this one, with its colorful art and lava lamp, was my favorite. One unique aspect of the inn is that President Carter’s wife, Rosalyn Carter, helped select the furniture that adorns each themed room.
Early on a Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, a friend and I left from Nashville for the six-hour drive to Plains. After a stop in Columbus for a late BBQ lunch, we arrived. We checked in and were briefed on the process of visiting President Carter’s church. We were handed a lineup number and instructed to arrive the next morning no later than 7:45 a.m. We settled into our room and drove nearby to the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Home, which was closing around 5:00 p.m.
The manager invited us to explore the grounds, made more enjoyable by the fact that no one else was there. We roamed the perimeter and listened to recordings via telephone of Carter reminiscing about the house, commissary, barn, and various other stops along the way.
The former President explained how everyone on the farm rose at 4:00 a.m. to begin work. One of his early jobs was to carry water to other workers. Sometimes Jimmy was called away from the dinner table when someone—a man, for instance, in pursuit of a plug of tobacco—cameafter-hours to buy an item from the next-door commissary, operated by his father, who would toss him the keys to open the building.
We walked across the red clay court next to the house where Carter learned to play tennis and listened to a recording in which he explained how two of his boyhood pastimes included listening to radio shows such asAmos and Andywith his family. He loved to read books, his only “travel” out of his small town as a youngster, an enjoyment which remained with him, influencing his writing of over 20 books of his own.
Afterwards, we made the 10-minute drive to Americus for dinner, as Plains offers limited dining choices. The next morning we were up at 6:00, getting ready and arriving at Maranatha, Baptist Church, about a mile from the inn, around 7:30. A sizablegroup of people was already waiting to enter. One man had even gotten to the church in the darkness of 3:00 a.m. Our designated number was 35, so we found our spot. Cars continued to arrive and were pointed to specified parking spots by Ms. Williams’ husband while she helped get everyone in line. An officer guided a trained canine around every car in the lot to detect explosives.
Sometime before 9:00 a.m., the line moved. Just before entering, we emptied our pockets, and agents waved a wand across each entrant to check for potential weapons. Inside, we were briefed on procedures for President Carter’s arrival. The first few moments, he would inquire about the places from where people had come, during which we could take photos, followed by the lesson. After church, we could have a photo made on our cell phones with the President and Mrs. Carter, but we were not to give them anything, ask for autographs, or attempt to carry on a conversation. After all, they, too, wanted to go home for lunch at a decent time.
When President Carter arrived, it was a surreal moment. He greeted everyone in his characteristic gentle voice. After he sought out our places of origin, he talked briefly about a few of his political tenets and his humanitarian work with the Carter Center. Then he began the lesson, which focused on living one’s life in a desirable way. He taught without any notes, and then before preaching began, he and Rosalyn took their seats in the third row of the right set of pews, along with other members of their congregation.
Following the service, each person or group quickly made their way up to stand with the President and former First Lady for a photo, an exciting moment. I stood on the right beside President Carter, my white jacket touching his navy blue blazer. Although we had been instructed to avoid conversation, I, like others, offered a simple “thank you” to the couple.
Upon leaving, we went back to the inn to gather belongings and visit the Plain Peanut Store on the other end of the same strip so I could buy a t-shirt and we could sample some soft-serve peanut butter ice cream, a fitting conclusion for a pilgrimage to the hometown of a plains folk former president.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and is a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Education. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)